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JFK Redux: Robert Drew's 'President to Remember'

By Ron Sutton

From Robert Drew's <em>A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy</em>

Editor's Note: Robert Drew's A President to Remember: In the Company of John F.Kennedy airs January 20--the 50th anniversary of JFK's inuaguration--on HBO. What follows in an article about the film that appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Documentary.

Can a documentary film about a 1960s US Presidency be relevant in today's election year? It depends on who's telling the story and how it's told.

Robert Drew felt that documentaries of his day, especially in broadcasting, were mostly illustrated lectures and/or boring, opinionated commentary. He was convinced, from his experience as a photo editor for Life magazine in the 1950s, that there was a more exciting and revealing way to capture history with moving pictures--candid pictures that would reveal what historical figures did, felt and expressed as they made earth-shaking decisions and lived with the consequences. 

To try out his new ideas, he needed equipment that would allow a filmmaker to capture image and sound without significantly altering or disrupting the natural flow of events. And access to a significant historical figure would help.

Drew got his access in 1960, in the person of a young US senator running for the Democratic nomination for President, John F. Kennedy. With soon-to-be-legendary filmmaking talent on board--Richard Leacock, DA Pennebaker, Al Maysles--and using existing 16mm technology they had jerry-rigged and invented, Drew Associates produced the one-hour film Primary, and with it introduced one of the earliest examples of the Direct Cinema or Cinema Vérité style of documentary filmmaking.

Drew maintains that he had been impressed by candidate Kennedy's "spirit, his daring and his command of the English language." And when Kennedy won the presidency, Drew approached him about documenting his tenure in the White House, which would mean granting Drew Associates unprecedented access to Kennedy and his administration, thereby creating a "new kind of history...a history that could not be told in print--one perceived through direct observation of key characters in action," Drew explains. "Kennedy's idea, as he put it to me, was, ‘What if I could look back and see what happened in the White House during the 24 hours before Roosevelt declared war on Japan?'"

So, with that agreement, Drew and his team set out to record history as it happened. "He allowed me and my cameras to range with unprecedented freedom through his administration," Drew recalls. "Looking back, what continues to impress me is the steadfastness and balance he showed in matters of war and peace." 

A President to Remember: In the Company of John F. Kennedy, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, is a composition drawn from the four films Drew Associates made about Kennedy--Primary (1960), Adventures on the New Frontier (1961), Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963) and Faces of November (1964)--as well as other archival footage from the Kennedy era. A President to Remember was directed by Drew and produced by his wife, Anne Drew.

The film begins with the Wisconsin primary race between Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey. Drew's team traveled with the candidates, filming them at bleak campaign dinners, in crowded meeting halls, smoky hotel rooms and local diners, and at radio and TV studios, as they try to make themselves known to the "man on the street."

The film continues with scenes from Kennedy's election, inauguration and the early days of his administration--including the failed invasion of Cuba and the landmark trip to Berlin. We then reach the point in the film that demonstrates what both Drew and Kennedy were after in their historical collaboration.

This section of the work, excerpted from Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, depicts a moment in the civil rights movement when Alabama Governor George Wallace defied the federal government's court order to integrate the University of Alabama. We watch the tense conference in the Oval Office between the president and his advisors, the discussion of strategy and the development of a plan, the phone calls involving the plan's execution, the confrontation itself, and the denouement, highlighted by Kennedy's inspiring speech to the nation that evening.

Here is the heart of what Kennedy and Drew were after: a president and his cabinet--including his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy--making decisions that will clearly affect the future of the country. This is truly a new kind of history in images and sound. 

But then, all too quickly, we arrive at the moment of his assassination. We see him standing with his back to us, framed by a window in the Oval Office. We hear a gunshot on the sound track. The screen fades to black.

The images that follow are from Faces of November, Drew's elegiac 12-minute film of President Kennedy's funeral that he made for ABC-TV. The film won prizes at the 1964 Venice Film Festival in both the Theatrical and Television categories, but it never aired because the length was not convenient for the network.

Drew was compelled to repurpose his work in this presidential election year because he believed it would be timely and relevant to look back at "another president, from another time...I felt that the difference between our current president and JFK's example was so dramatic and could be so revealing that it called for a film that would allow contrasting of the two. In the 44 years since JFK's death, generations have grown up, many of them less than inspired by presidential example, that could well be reminded of past American presidential leadership."

The film's Tribeca Film Festival premiere received banner reviews, as critics deemed it "powerful" and "startling." Drew is currently is discussion with various television outlets about a fall broadcast, but plans have not been firmed up at press time.


Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.